Design-led Architects based in Gravesend, Kent delivering highly workable contemporary and innovative design solutions to challenging briefs and tight budgets

Meway Crematorium Complete

Medway Crematorium Completed

Photo: Quintin Lake 

A crematorium is a building of two halves; each half deals with a different aspect of the way we deal with our recently departed, our dead. The half the public seldom sees (the half that the project team euphemistically refer to as ‘the back of house’) is essentially an industrial process— apart from the cremated remains, by-products of the cremation process are classed by DEFRA as trade effluent or waste. 

DEFRA’s introduction of the requirement for crematoriums to abate or filter the environmental pollutant mercury (from tooth fillings) from at least 50% of all cremations carried out was the initial driver for this project. The specialist equipment required to abate mercury is costly and the process of installing the equipment onto existing plant is complex and challenging; in seeking to meet DEFRA’s deadline and requirements Medway Council made a decision to upgrade and replace all existing cremators with fuel efficient plant to prolong the useful life of the crematorium. The council also decided that, if sufficient capital were raised, the ‘front of house’ should be extended as well. 


Photo: Quintin Lake 

Designed by Sir Dawber, Fox and Robinson, Medway Crematorium was completed in 1959 during the boom in crematorium building that followed the Cremation Act of 1952. Sir Edward Dawber was a respected and scholarly architect in the Cotswold vernacular tradition, president of the RIBA from1925 to 27, a recipient of the RIBA gold medal in 1928. Partner Christopher Robinson authored and presented a paper entitled ‘Economy in Crematorium Design’ to the Crematorium Society (based in nearby Maidstone) at their annual conference in 1977— and the experience shows. What impresses about the design of this crematorium is the elegance and efficiency of the symmetrical cross plan, with the porte-cochere, chapels and covered walkways laid out to ensure the smooth flow of visitor arrival, attendance at service, and departure through the building. The symmetrically mirrored functions between east and west chapels enable consecutive services to be alternated and managed with a minimum of fuss. Unlike many other crematoriums, this building can be viewed in the round; the back of house is not tucked away from sight.. 

Local demographic and cultural changes since the original building was completed have led to larger numbers of mourners attending cremation services and therefore a need for larger chapels (although the number of services have remained constant over the years). The chapels are dedicated, not consecrated; Medway Crematorium is a non-denominational facility. The ethnic population of North Kent has grown significantly since the ‘50s and there is a large Indian population in the area for whom funeral rites are closely bound with cremation (and for whom what happens at the back of house matters, culturally). 

The facility is much used, much loved. The brief was to keep the chapel extensions subservient to the original building and tucked away from sight, barely visible from the approach to the existing front elevation. 


Photo: Quintin Lake  


Image: Clay Architecture Ltd

This, and the location of mature trees and cremated remains on the site led to a decision to remove the outer flank walls and extend the side of each chapel. The tapered polygonal plan of the extensions are determined by the sight lines to the catafalque positioned in the apse or focal point of each chapel. But removing a wall and part of the roof down the entire length of each chapel breaks the chapels’ symmetry and leaves a lopsided plan. 

To ‘rebalance’ the asymmetrical plan a second axis or centre-line is introduced, radiating from the same focal point (apse) as the centre-line of the original chapel. A large steel beam replaces the removed wall of the chapel; a steel Vierendeel truss springs from this beam, forming the axis of the new extension. Glulam half-portal frames spring from the top and bottom cord on either side of the truss, forming the skeletal frame of the new extension. Due to the peculiarities of the tapered sight-line plan, the glulam frame on one side of the truss rises as one approaches the focal point of the chapel, while the glulam frame on the opposite side of the truss falls. Between the top and bottom cord of the central Virendeel truss north-facing clerestory windows are inserted to light the line of sight towards the apse.


Photo: Clay Architecture Ltd

Photo: Quintin Lake


Photo: Quintin Lake

The user client had concerns that the contemporary extension would be ‘too industrial’ looking— we had settled on a bronze-coloured standing-seam zinc cladding (VM Zinc pigmento rouge) to blend in with the arts and crafts brick-and-tile palette of the existing building; there were regrets about the loss of the mirrored box-diamond patterned leaded glass windows on the demolished walls, and concerns about the large picture windows framing the park— that visitors could look into the chapels and disturb or distract a private service. There was concern about the possibility of glare from early morning and late afternoon sun.


Photo: Quintin Lake

Partly inspired by 19th C marble window screens made in Agra (in the V&A), our response was to design a 150mm deep metal screen (not quite a brise soleil) using a scaled up version of the mirrored box-diamond pattern, set 300mm in front of the large gable-end windows. Side windows are sand-blasted with a similar (scaled down) pattern in negative.

     
Photos: Quintin Lake

 Getting the large, 2 tonne metal screens fabricated was not easy— a succession of steel fabricators backed out before Hellings Fabrications of Margate took on the job. Originally designed to be fabricated in aluminium, these were eventually completed in steel— it is not possible to butt-weld aluminium plates in the desired ‘6 leg star’ pattern without distortion. Each screen was designed to be assembled out of 6 separate panels— based on the maximum fit into a galvanising bath— and a secondary frame, coined the ferramata (based on the ferramata struts used to hold the leaded stained glass windows in St Pauls in place), introduced to bolt the 6 panels together. The delayed installation of the screens (compounded by having to refabricate a whole screen when one was run over by a truck in the galvanising yard) meant that the screens were installed out of the architect’s preferred sequence— we’d intended to install the screens before zinc-cladding was completed so that the screens (now bolted in front of the windows) could have been partially built into the head of the windows with a short zinc canopy to conceal the fixing brackets. 

Once the screens were finally installed, they had a huge impact on the quality of light within the chapels. 


Photo: Quintin Lake

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Medway Crematorium Steel Sun Screen

Brise Soleil Installation

On Saturday 2nd November, the Brise Soleils were finally installed at both newly extended chapels at Medway Crematorium.

Brise Soleil lifted by the loading Crane 

Installing the Brise Soleil onto its foundation 










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Medway Crematorium update

November 2012: roof junction

Phase 1 works at Medway Crematorium— east chapel extension, new cremator plant, extended car park— are nearly complete. Phase 2 ( west chapel extension ) is scheduled to complete in Autumn.


November 2012

Construction is my favourite stage in the process of any project— excitement and worry in equal measure; seeing technical drawings and specifications made flesh. Did we get it right? How do we save this detail?  It’s been a long winter! Blizzards; hours in the numbing cold spent discussing zinc cladding details with the roofer ( East European Muslim if I’m not mistaken ); cracking heads with Colin ( site manager ) over junction details too geometrically complicated to be worked out on paper; coordinating with Rick ( contract manager ) final items of kit to fit within the building— natural ventilation comes at a price— 700mm deep walls of louver, acoustic mitigation, actuator, ventilation damper and grille sourced and coordinated from separate manufacturer suppliers— the opposite of easy ( and in the end all hidden away from view ). But Winter is a busy period for any crematorium; we each have our own bereavements, my own included— this winter.


November 2012: view down Vierendeel truss with glulam frames at high level

The project ticked a couple of firsts for us: first project where we proposed glulam that wasn’t value engineered out; first built Clay project where we got to apply projective geometry. The geometry of the interior of the extended chapel may look skewed but it has an iron logic to it.


November 2012: view from existing chapel to extension

The original crematorium building, designed by Sir Dawber, Fox and Robinson, was completed in 1959, during the height of the post-war crematorium building boom of the 50s and 60s.  Sir Guy Dawber was RIBA president in his time; Christopher Robinson presented a paper entitled ‘Economy in Crematorium Design’ to the Cremation Society ( based in nearby Maidstone ) at their annual conference in Brighton in 1977.

Dawber, Fox and Robinson may have designed and built the crematorium in a late Arts and Crafts style but the building betrays its modernity with a plan that looks like an X-wing starfighter; a plan that would please any geometer or process engineer.


Perfectly symmetrical ( give or take an inch or so ), the existing building has the crematory where the starfighter would have its cockpit, and an east chapel and cloister and a west chapel and cloister for X-wings. Services alternate between east and west wings at 45 minute intervals, the plan enabling delivery of services without a clash between groups of mourners.

The new works have been made necessary by two developments: one recent, one gradual. 1. DEFRA now requires that mercury ( from tooth fillings ) must be abated ( filtered ) for at least 50% of all cremations carried out. 2. Although the number of cremations have remained constant over the years, local demographic changes and changes in culture / practice in North Kent have led to larger numbers of mourners attending cremation services.

The location of mature trees and cremated remains on the site led to a decision to remove the flank wall and extend the side of the non-denominational chapels. The tapered polygonal plan of the extension to each chapel is determined by the sight lines to the coffin positioned in the apse or focal point of the chapel. So far so good, but having removed a whole wall and part of the roof down the entire length of each chapel one is left with a broken symmetry and a strange lopsided plan.

In the late ‘80s early ‘90s Barcelona architect Alfreddo Arribas ( or was it Enric Miralles in a lecture? ) described something he called ‘balanced asymmetry’.  In architectural geometry we look for the centre-line or base-line for setting-out the geometric logic of a building— the building’s DNA, if you will. The geometer / architect’s challenge is to find symmetry and balance in an irregular site or set of circumstances.

In the case of Medway Crem the original symmetry of the chapels have been so broken and the plan so skewed by the new extension sight lines that a second axis or centre-line has to be introduced, radiating from the same focal point ( coffin / apse ) as the centre-line of the original chapel. A large steel beam replaces the removed wall of the chapel; a steel Vierendeel truss springs from this beam, forming the axis of the new extension. Glulam half-portal frames spring from the top and bottom cord on either side of the truss, forming the skeletal frame of the new extension. Due to the peculiarities of the tapered sight-line plan, the glulam frame on one side of the truss rise as one approaches the focal point of the chapel, while the glulam frame on the opposite side of the truss fall. Between the top and bottom cord of the central Virendeel truss there is an opportunity to insert north-facing clerestory windows to gently light the line of sight towards the apse.

You can say the shape of the extension ‘made’ itself. We worked out what the rules were and followed them.

November 2012: junction between extension and existing chapel

January 2013: view of existing chapel from extension


January 2013: carcassing up the ceiling junction


March 2013: intersection between ceiling voids


March 2013

Brise Soleil

Camilla and I had a meeting on site with Rick to discuss the brise soliel a month or so ago, just before I had to fly to Vancouver for my mother’s funeral / wake. Rick was having trouble finding a steel fabricator to tackle the brise soliel. The structure could not be fabricated in aluminium ( specified for relatively lightness ) because welding would distort the plates too much. They would have to fabricate in steel. How to join or weld the 2- to 8-leg ‘star’ junctions of the brise soliel pattern cleanly? The brise soliel structure is large and heavy and would be difficult to galvanise, powder-coat finish, transport and erect in one piece. They would have to divide it into smaller sections. How would they fit the sections together on site? How would they make the structure of the joined up sections robust enough?

Camilla had some ideas and agreed that we’d build a large scale model to demonstrate a solution.  She took charge of this while I got on the plane with our boys and flew to Vancouver.

The brise soliel originally came about because of a combination of client concerns about the design of the new chapel extension. The existing leaded stained-glass windows ( with a variation of a box diamond leaded-glass pattern ) were much loved and their removal on one wall of the chapel was a loss. There was concern that the extension design would be too ‘industrial’ looking. Although the client liked the large glass windows with views of the park at the gable-end, there was concern that that visitors and mourners to other services would be able to look through the windows into the chapel; that this would be distracting to whoever was conducting service. There was some concern about glare from the late afternoon sun into the west chapel.

Inspired by a picture of a 19th Century marble window screen from Agra ( in the V&A http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/the-indian-sub-continent-land-and-culture/ ) we came up with the idea for a large patterned window screen fabricated from aluminium or steel. We would replicate the leaded-glass pattern of the lost windows, in blown-up scale, on this screen. A difficult piece to get right, but Camilla thinks outside the box, understands something of steel fabrication from her previous life as maker of large steel sculptures; if anyone can work out an elegant solution she can. I came back from Vancouver hit with the worst jet-lag ever and climbed the 4 flights of stairs to the office, to find the most beautiful paper card model origami in full production.

Camilla’s proposed solution is built on the foundation of 4 ideas:

  • Divide the structure into 6 parts, along the line where the pattern has greatest fabrication complexity ( the 8-leg star junctions ). Align these with the location of the window mullion junctions behind.
  • Form the star junctions using a system of notched blades that slot cleanly over one another ( inspired by ‘60s slotted toy building sets ).
  • Rationalise and break the pattern up into ‘snakes’ that slot together and form the complete pattern.
  • Fix the 6 parts together using a secondary frame sited behind the brise soliel ( inspired by the ferramata structure of the large leaded-glass windows at St Paul’s Cathedral). The secondary frame is aligned with the location of the window mullions behind the screen to lessen its impact on the pattern.

Medway Crem Brise Soleil Model Flickbook Gallery

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1:5 model: view from the rear showing 4 panels fixed together using cross-ferramenta


Image/s: Clay Architecture

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